After centuries of forced isolation, in the past hundred and fifty years Japan has become one of the most industrious and influential civilizations in terms of economics and culture. Whereas samurai in Edo were concerned with kabuki, the woodcuts of the "floating world", and their own internal politics, one hundred years later Japanese artists, architects, fashion designers and businesspeople were at the world's center stage. The age-old traditions of Wa (usually translated as “harmony”) have been replaced, for better or worse, by those of progress and profit.
According to the Kojiki, the first book written in Japan (c.712 AD), the brother and sister deities Izanagi and Izanami, born after the first five primordial gods, created the 434 islands of Japan – churning the seas with a great spear, and drops from that spear formed land where the two settled and begat a host of other kami (gods or “spiritual essences”). The truth is likely far more prosaic; humans crossed land-bridges around 40 thousand years before the islands became detached from Asia some 29 thousand years later. By 660 BC there was a civilization with an emperor supposedly descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Japanese “recorded history” begins about the third century, although there are innocuous references earlier such as that in the Chinese Book of the Later Han dated to 57 AD. This Kofun-jidai (“Kofun period”) saw the rise of several military clans, most notably the Yamato who became dominant – no doubt with much bloodshed – in the south-central part of the main island Honshu. Eventually, having beaten everyone else into submission, the Yamato declared themselves emperors of the united islands of Japan. But as their power waned over the next couple of centuries, the authority of the imperial court was steadily eroded by ambitious daimyo (loosely: “lords”).
During the first centuries under the Yamato emperors, Japanese farmers began using iron tools for agriculture, and the land saw more advanced cultivation and flooding of the fields used to grow rice, a tasty and highly-nutritious grain that would quickly become the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. This agrarian largess meant that fewer farmers could grow greater amounts of food, allowing the daimyo to dedicate that surplus manpower to military affairs. A new class arose to wedge themselves into Japanese society: the samurai or “those who serve in close attendance.” Soon, all sorts of lords had their own private armies. It was at this time the Japanese imported a number of technological advances from their neighbors, the most important of which may be writing from China; along with Chinese script came religion, in the form of Confucianism. In the sixth century, Buddhism appeared as well.
The first shoguns were appointed by the Emperor as Sei-i Taishogun (“Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians”) to remove the Emishi, Ainu, and others on the islands that would not accept imperial rule. In time the title became hereditary, and the shogun became the acknowledged military leader of the land and true ruler behind the imperial throne. Needless-to-say, this meant a lot of in-fighting for the post. In 1185 AD, the Minamoto would kill off most of the current shogun Taira clan in the Genpei War. The Minamoto promptly established a feudal system by law, with the cloistered emperor pretty-much limited to being a revered figurehead.
When Minamoto Yoritomo died, his wife’s family – the Hojo clan – took control of the shogunate. Among other things, the Hojo in the guise of Tokimune defeated two Mongol invasions, spread Zen Buddhism and helped formulate the final form of the code of bushido. The Mongol invasions were pivotal for two things in Japanese history. The Japanese were horrified when their swords tended to break on the thick, boiled leather armor of the Mongols, leading to the development of the famed Katana by master swordsmiths. And the fierce samurai had faced a non-Japanese foe for the first of only three times (the invasions of Korea in 1592 and Ryukyu in 1609 being the others); mostly they just chopped each other to bits.
The Hojo clan remained in power until 1333 AD, when Emperor Go-Daigo launched a coup to return actual rule to the imperial family. He was assisted in the struggle by a group of aristocrats, plus several samurai clans and some militant Buddhist monks. But a number of important allies of Go-Daigo were unhappy with their cut of the spoils, and in 1336 they then revolted, driving the emperor north into the Yoshino Mountains. For the next 60 years there were two imperial courts, the Northern and Southern, with control of Japan split between them. The southern emperor remained a figurehead, with real power in the hands of the Ashikaga shogunate. In 1391 the imperial courts were reunited, with power held by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji.
This set off the period in Japanese development known as the “Warring States” (or Sengoku if wanting to be formal about terminology) period, 150 years marked by social upheaval, political intrigue (mixed with some assassination) and near-constant military conflict between those private armies of samurai. It did have its high points. Engineering of magnificent castles – some still standing – became an art form; Japanese warriors became adept with many weapons, including the musket after European traders introduced firearms; and the ninja first appeared. Eventually, the country was nearly unified under the brilliant Oda Nobunaga, who had the misfortune of being betrayed and killed in 1582 AD by one of his most trusted officers. In the bloody aftermath, Nobunaga’s neighboring daimyo and ally, Tokugawa Ieyasu – one of the most famous samurai of all – assumed the title of shogun in 1603.
In the midst of all this, the Europeans arrived. In 1543 a Portuguese ship on its way to China ended up making landfall on Tanegashima Island. In the following few years, traders from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England all decided to stop by, and Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries chose to stay and spread their gospel. The new shogun had his suspicions that the trading enclaves and churches that were being established were merely the forerunners of a European invasion. Moreover, Christianity was spreading rapidly, especially among the sullen peasants. In 1637 the Shimabara Rebellion – composed of some 30 thousand Christians (mostly peasants) and rōnin (lordless samurai) – was put down only by a massive army led by the shogun.
The shoguns had had enough. The Shimabara uprising was followed by the first of the so-called Sakoku (seclusion laws) under Tokagawa Iemitsu, and added to by his successors for the next quarter-millennia. Missionaries, traders and foreigners of all sorts – save for some Dutch and Chinese confined to the island of Dejima at Nagasaki – were expelled. Trade with Korea was limited to Tsushima. No foreigner could enter nor Japanese leave on penalty of immediate death. The Catholics were expelled, their schools and churches torn down, and the daimyo were forbidden to become Christians on penalty of - not surprisingly - death (the standard Japanese punishment for almost any transgression).
Whether the Sakoku policy was responsible or not, during these 250-plus years of the Tokagawa shogunate Japan experienced a social and cultural flowering, as well as relative stability and peace (enforced on the points of katana). Ukiyo-e wood-block printing produced masterful works of art, as did kabuki and bunraku theater; some of the most famous compositions for koto and shakuhachi date from this period. The geisha evolved from simple entertainers - of all sorts - into the pinnacle of refined femininity. Patronage of the arts by the samurai spread elegant landscaping and architecture across the islands. The social structure became rigid, a system in which each know their place and responsibilities, from the lowest peasants (some 85% of the population) to the 250 daimyos. The punishment for stepping out of one’s station tended to be severe … and immediate. Everything became rigidly ritualized, from having tea to killing oneself.
Japan was doing pretty well until American admiral Matthew Perry came calling in 1853 AD. Sailing around the Bay of Edo with the guns of his four modern warships at the ready, he demanded that Japan open trade with the West without restrictions. The next year, Perry appeared again, this time with seven ships and forced the shogun to sign the “Treaty of Peace and Amity” under the threat of the Americans’ big guns. Within five years, Japan “enjoyed” similar treaties with most of the Western powers. The shame of being outgunned by a foreign military force right on its inviolate doorstep toppled the shogunate, with de facto power shifting back to the emperor.
The vigorous young Emperor Meiji, taking the throne in 1867, initiated a period of radical reform from top to bottom in his country, seeking to make Japan militarily and economically equal to the West whose warships were sailing about its islands. By 1912 the government had abolished feudalism, placed the lands of most of the daimyos under “imperial control,” returned much of that to the peasant farmers, established freedom of worship, promoted trade, and virtually annihilated the samurai class. On a more pragmatic note, the throne encouraged industrialization, and established a constitutional monarch based upon the European model. And in 1873, Japan initiated nationwide conscription, creating an Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.
So efficient it was, Japan quickly emerged as the major power in the region, and soon emulated another Western proclivity – building a colonial empire. In 1894 AD Japan became embroiled with moribund China over who would dominate Korea; Japan won handily, gaining “independence” for Korea and Formosa, the Pescadores and the Liaotung Peninsula for itself. But the Western powers made Japan return the latter to China, who promptly leased it to Russia. Japan was infuriated, and the resultant 1904 Russo-Japanese War gave Japan the opportunity to show it could stomp a “Western” power. World War I presented Japan the chance to grab defeated Germany’s possessions in the Pacific and Asia. Japan next began nibbling at China, and moved into Manchuria – alarming just about everyone. Spurred by the depression and Western tariffs, totalitarian militarists took control of the government. By the late 1930s, the Western democracies and Imperial Japan were on a collision course.
With public outcry in the United States mounting with reports of Japanese atrocities in China, the occupation of Indo China upon France’s utter defeat by Nazi Germany, and clashes with Russia in Manchuria, it was not long before Japan joined the fray that was World War 2 with an attack on the United States and the British Empire in 1941 AD. In the debacle that followed, after initial stunning success, Japan found itself on the losing end of the Pacific War, concluded in August 1945 after atomic devastation. From those ashes though, under an American occupation, the nation rose again like a hou-ou (Japanese phoenix), becoming one of the world’s leading economic, technological and cultural leaders.